I want to look at some of the practical implementations that are being looked at by schools who are continuing schooling during the lock-down. I will focus on high schools in particular because that’s where my experience lies.
There are two broad philosophies that one can take when approaching online learning.
The first, and arguably more familiar, is an attempt to run a traditional timetable and a traditional classroom.
This is a tempting approach for teachers and schools in that it resembles the familiar structure of their days, but our current environment is anything but familiar and hence not conducive to learning! In ideal circumstances, working from home is wonderful – the children are at school and partners are at work: the house is yours and you would have the time and ability to focus on your class of students in front of you. The reality is far from this ideal!
To work around the demands of work and home management, different approach must be adopted: that of asynchronous learning.
This certainly comes with its own challenges. Work need to be prepared for online delivery. This might mean finding or creating videos to give what might have otherwise been a simple explanation in class. Exercises need to be set, fully aware that what was “putting up a hand” to ask a question is now a much more difficult thing to do.
Additionally, teachers are obliged to know if their students engaging in the work? How do they check?
My approach has been to adopt a hybrid approach. Content is outlined, video explanations are provided and exercises are set. The timing on this is considered quite carefully to ensure that we don’t exceed our timetabled allocation. Feedback from students helps us to revisit this each week. Twice a week, however, we have an online class meeting. This isn’t meant, primarily, as a teaching session, but rather a Q&A session. It is important that the whole class (or as many as possible) join the session so that they can get the benefit from their peers’ questions. These sessions are (ideally) recorded and uploaded for those who were not able to join the live session to still get the benefit of the content that was discussed.
Content Distribution Platforms
Having a reliable and accessible learning platform becomes important. There are a number of options with most schools using at least one or combinations of the following platforms, particularly at a high school level.
Which platform is ultimately chosen is less important. The three above all allow for content exposition, assignment hand-ins and online marking.
Provided that your pupils have access to the materials, any of these platforms will work! An important consideration for many schools is ensuring that their teachers are capable and competent at using the platform.
Once again, there are a variety of conferencing systems that are available. One popular option at the moment is Zoom. Schools signed up for Google’s G Suite will gravitate towards Google Meet, and those with Microsoft’s 365 offering will gravitate to Teams.
If you don’t want to route all your calls via large international corporations, DIY options are available, including Big Blue Button.
In my opinion, the human interaction that these platforms allow is what keeps me sane and gives me some reinforcement that what I’m doing is not simply being sent out into the void.
Creating content to be consumed by correspondence requires a specific set of skills. Worksheets are still valid, but the mere act of “handing them in” now becomes a technological obstacle. I dare say that some worksheets require a few small tweaks, some require massive overhauls.
Many teachers are resorting to creating videoed explanations of new concepts and of worked examples.
Your content delivery platforms are important here: Google, for example, will allow any video file uploaded to Drive to be streamed rather than downloaded and played. Platforms such as Moodle, as an example, certainly allow for video and embedded playback, but are not able to stream the content. One also has to remember the pupils that don’t have reliable internet access.
Although the question has been raised a number of times, the concept of formal assessment during this lock down is not a priority for many. Guaranteeing authentic assessments is difficult given the requirements of the syllabus and the matric qualification itself.
Although formal assessment is being left until we return to school, it remains important to ensure that content is being understood and assimilated. To this end, many schools are using tools such as Google Forms, Microsoft Quiz, Quizziz and many, many other assessment platforms, to conduct quick informal assessments of pupils’ understandings of certain topics.
A less rigorous academic approach is to ask students to fill in a regular feedback form. This is often akin to an “exit slip” or even a journaling exercise where students are encouraged to reflect on their learning over the last few days or a week.
One aspect that we’ve yet to deal with is the reintegration back into the classroom. It is quite likely that when schools re-open, not all pupils will be in a position to return. How will schools deal with this? Will the online education aspect continue in parallel with daily teaching requirements?
There are some questions that only time will be able to answer.
I do believe that this foray into online distance education might expand the “traditional” schools’ understanding of how to deliver quality education. A closer examination of aspects of the “flipped classroom” could certainly influence a school’s direction to look at teachers hired specifically for their ability to create quality content and teachers hired specifically for their ability to facilitate and manage the learning process. If regular understanding can be assessed by automated means, it leaves the humans free to focus on the human stuff.
Data, Technology & Space
One aspect I’ve ignored here is the staff and pupil access to reliable internet access and suitable technology on which to work. I appreciate that not all schools are equipped to provide teachers with the training or facilities to conduct adequate online teaching. I am more than aware that the ability for pupils to access the videos, content and communication platforms is limited directly by their socioeconomic circumstances.
But also space: learning requires space. Some peace and quiet to focus. This applies equally to teachers and students.
In all of this, I am aware that we are doing the best we can in the environments in which we find ourselves. I am also aware that for many people – teachers and students – there are levels of anxiety and stress that are not conducive to learning. There are the physical issues of space, of being able to work without interruption, and of being able to feel secure which will hamper learning.
These people, fortunately, can rest easy that this is not the new normal, but a temporary inconvenience. Whatever the new normal ends up being, there is one thing that is nearly certain: the old normal is gone for good.